Our lives are frittered away by detail. Simplify, simplify. – Henry David Thoreau
I am an admirer of Henry David Thoreau, an American writer during the 1800’s. Thoreau was a philosopher who is most famous for his ideas about simplicity. He is known as the guy who went and lived in the woods for a while to escape the luxuries of a “modern” world which he called a “hindrance to the elevation of mankind.” His mantra was this: “simplify your life and you will get more out of it.”
Thoreau had some hangups and strange beliefs. I certainly don’t condone everything he believed. But in many regards, he was very wise. I could list quote after quote from him that would resonate with you.
His big problem was just this: God did not fit into his equation.
In spite of that problem, his call to simplify closely aligns with a prominent message in Ecclesiastes. The first few chapters give us a litany of things that don’t satisfy in life: materialism, hedonism, knowledge, and achievement are the main categories. Assuming Solomon was the author of Ecclesiastes, he was speaking from real experience because no one was richer, experienced more, knew more, and accomplished more than Solomon during his time. And after telling us everything that does not make life meaningful, Solomon says this:
There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his work. This also is from the hand of God, for apart from him, who can eat and find enjoyment?
I want you to notice something important about this conclusion. Note that the bar is set pretty low by our standards; note the simplicity. You don’t have to be wealthy; you just have to have food and drink on the table at night. You don’t have to accomplish lofty goals; you just have to enjoy your work regardless of how mundane your work may seem. Life does not have to be complex and full of achievement and fat bank accounts. The meaning of life is found in the simple things.
Or perhaps Solomon would put it this way: “Don’t fritter your life away chasing things that don’t matter; simplify and learn to find beauty in the simple things. And above all, be thankful to God for those little things.”
In our materialistic culture, we need to hear that. In our constant drive for achievement, we need to hear that.
I do not struggle much with materialism. I can walk through a mall a few times and never see anything I want to buy (except maybe candy). But I will make a confession to you. I do struggle with a drive to achieve. I fight a battle with myself over achievement constantly. I think we all struggle in at least one of the areas Solomon mentioned.
Recently, I started reading Ann Voskamp and I greatly admire her too. Her writing is Thoreau-like in some respects but she doesn’t make the same mistake he made: while she is always pointing out the deep meaning in simplicity and a simple life, she does so from a God-centric perspective.
Here is a bit of her writing that applies to what I have been saying here:
Running hard after an extraordinary life turns out to be chasing a lie.
The realest extraordinary is always found in the ordinary.
The extra everyone’s looking for — it’s found in ordinary.
That’s a life equation. Take it or leave it…
I think Thoreau and even Solomon would heartily agree.